The Cuban Missile Crisis has been dissected and explored to a level of granular detail by dramatists and historians and politicians ever since those harrowing events of October 1962 concluded, since it’s very likely that was the closest the world has ever come to thermonuclear war. Yet as this excellent made-for-TV drama underscores, the lasting lesson is not just how easily men of hostile intent nearly drove two nations into globally destructive conflict, but how skillfully men of conscience defused the situation. Historically, much of the credit for ending the crisis rightfully goes to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for a crucial strategy suggestion he made late in the game, but The Missiles of October conveys that the world was saved by the collective efforts of RFK, President John F. Kennedy, and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev, among many others. In today’s post-9/11 era of brinksmanship and escalation, the lessons in The Missiles of October are perhaps more important than ever.
From an aesthetic perspective, The Missiles of October is highly unusual. Shot on videotape, it’s essentially a recording of a play, even though many cinematic flourishes are employed. (For instance, each act opens with a shot of a giant board bearing the show’s title and flags, with the camera zooming into the flag of the nation where the act’s first scene takes place.) Moreover, The Missiles of October is quite long, running two and a half hours even without commercials, so the storytelling is gradual, methodical, and specific. Viewers are taken all the way from the U.S. government’s first discovery that Russian missile bases are being assembled on the island nation of Cuba to the final resolution between the U.S., thrown into a defensive posture by the presence of missiles 90 miles off the coast of Florida, and the U.S.S.R., desperate to save face even though surrender is the only sane option. A fantastic cast tells the story, with William Devane’s alternately contemplative and intense portrayal of JFK dominating. He’s matched almost perfectly with Martin Sheen, who plays RFK. Together, they sketch a believable family bond while also expressing the horrible stakes of the crisis in their pained faces.
Whereas Devane and Sheen mimic the Kennedy brothers’ famous Boston accents, Howard Da Silva uses an unadorned American vocal style while playing Krushchev. In context, this choice works, because viewers aren’t distracted by dialect or subtitles while parsing the subtle moves that Krushchev made while maneuvering around Kremlin hawks to avoid disaster. Others familiar players in the cast are Ralph Bellamy, Dana Elcar, Michael Lerner, and Nehemiah Persoff, and character actor Thayer David provides occasional narration. Seen today, The Missiles of October might strike some viewers as aesthetically deficient, what with the grainy newsreel clips to illustrate military action and the use of minimalistic sets. Nonetheless, this film articulates the broad strokes of a key event in world history, as well as many of the most important nuances, with grace and power, eventually morphing from a docudrama to a taut thriller. The time one invests to watch The Missiles of October is rewarded handsomely.
The Missiles of October: GROOVY